A Drop of Water

A Drop of Water

Easter 5


As I began to write this, nine million people in the United States were under a severe weather warning.  Life interrupted and while I was called away, several tornadoes did indeed touch down in northeastern Oklahoma resulting in property damage and human injury.  Two nights earlier a similar scene played out on a television program but with less damage due to one of the lead characters creating dry ice which was sucked into the tornado resulting in a drastic drop in temperature and tornadic power.


“I’m not really a freak; I am a member of the community.”  This quote was said by the first women ever to receive a PhD. in meteorology, Dr. Joanne Simpson.   A graduate of the University of Chicago, Dr. Simpson would go on to lead the Experimental Meteorology Branch of the Environment Satellite Services Administration’s Institute for Atmospheric Sciences and eventually the lead weather forecaster at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).


While at the Experimental Satellite Services Administration, Dr. Simpson, in 1966, became the director of Project Stormfury.  For over twenty years, the United States government initiated this program to seed rain clouds within a cyclone or tropical tornado with silver iodide, much like the character did on the television program with dry ice.  Since tropical tornadoes or cyclones become hurricanes, this effort was considered ground-breaking and life-saving.


The premise behind the television program’s plot I mentioned earlier is not new.  The use of dry ice to effect a change in such a weather system was first posited by Vincent Schaefer and Irving Langmuir.  A researcher at the General Electric Corporation, Charles Schaefer had in 1946 caused a small snowstorm by cloud seeding.  Langmuir was a fan of weather modification and its possible life-saving results and both men would later be advisors for the U.S. military’s Project Cirrus.   Project Cirrus had as its primary goal the weakening of hurricane storm systems.  It was believed that by seeding the area around the eyewall of the hurricane, latent heat would be released and a new eyewall would be created.  The winds of the hurricane would then weaken due to air pressure changes within the system.


The hypothesis that one can seed clouds and cause rain within a tropical cyclone which would lower the temperature and disrupt the tornadic activity was unsuccessful.  It was found that such weather systems did not contain enough super-cooled water within themselves to effect the desired changes.   These systems also undergo such changes on their own given time.  The observational data and storm lifecycle research generated by Dr. Simpson’s Project Stormfury was not a complete failure, however.  The resulting research helped improve meteorologists’ ability to forecast the movement and intensity of future hurricanes.


One of Dr. Simpson’s ventures was the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM).  In conjunction with the Japanese government’s Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency or JAXA, TRMM was part of NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth, a long-term coordinated research program involving a satellite designed to study the earth as a global system.


Prior to TRMM, rainfall predictions worldwide had a fifty percent success rate.  This is an important statistic since tropical rainfall contains over three-fourths of the earth’s atmospheric wind circulation.  Dr. Joanne Simpson was living her quote about being a member of the community with this project.  TRMM’s program goals included improved understanding of the global energy and water cycles by providing distributions of rainfall and latent heating over the global tropical areas; the understanding of the mechanisms through which changes in tropical rainfall influence global circulation and to improve ability to model these processes in order to predict global circulations and rainfall variability at monthly and longer timescales.  It also provided rain and latent heating distributions to improve the initialization of models ranging from 24 hour forecasts to short-range climate variations.  This helps to improve hurricane forecasting and save lives.  Additionally, TRMM helped evaluate the diurnal variability of tropical rainfall globally and develop a space-based system for rainfall measurements.


Roger Miller once wrote that “Some people walk in the rain while others just get wet.”  Joanne Simpson not only walked in the rain, she blossomed in its nourishment and defeated the prejudice of women getting higher education.  She herself recognized the sacrifices she made in her personal life to do so but the millions who reap the harvest of her studies are forever thankful.  While nine million plus will feel the harsh effects of weather over the next twenty-four hours, fewer will perish, thanks to Simpson’s Project Stormfury and TRMM.



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